I’ve never understood this phenomenon but the vast majority of people in the blogosphere (and critics generally) don’t seem to enjoy it when a television program is far too open about its political beliefs. I’m a political science major and I encounter this phenomenon in real life. When I was an RA, my fellow coworkers eventually had to instate a rule that I wasn’t allowed to bring up politics at group events because they simply didn’t want to hear about it. Outside of my classes and the time I spend as a counselor at Boys State, open discussion of politics is something of a taboo in this country even though public participation and a public discourse on the issues is a founding tenet of our national political system. I remember how angry fans of Torchwood got when Russell T. Davies inserted his liberal political beliefs as a major part of the story of Miracle Day. Similarly, one of the most common complaints lobbied at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was that Aaron Sorkin’s trademark style of liberally idealism being a key theme of his series did not fit on a show about sketch comedy like it did for a show that was actually about politics (The West Wing). I disagree vehemently, and I have to congratulate Sorkin for being one of the truly courageous liberal voices on network television.
During this four episode stretch (the last two being a two-parter), we got a look at two separate weeks of the program. In the first week, a reporter from Vanity Fair has come to Studio 60 set in order to write a cover story on the state of the program now that Danny and Matt are in charge of the show. However, being an investigative reporter, she manages to stir up all sort of dirt and tension between the cast-members, though most notably, the past relationship between Matt and Harriet. During all of this, even more allegations are coming to light surrounding Jordan’s past relationship with her ex-husband and the various scandals surrounding that period of her life, which continues to get her into hot water with TMG (NBS’s parent company) Chariman Jack Rudolph. During the show, Matt and Harriett come very close to kissing during Sting’s performance (who wouldn’t want to make out while Sting was performing). During the wrap party, Danny tries to distract Matt with young and beautiful models, but their idiocy and his obvious feelings for Harriett keep that from occurring. He and Simon go to a comedy club to hear a black comedian they want to recruit for the show, but because the famous comedian tells bottom-tier race humor, they instead pick up an undisciplined but talented younger comedian. The second episode also somehow manages to incorporate the Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy era.
In the two-parter, we begin the episode before much of its story actually takes place. Tom Jeter is under arrest in the state of Nevada where he is also accompanied by the not in custody Simon Stiles, Jack Rudolph, Danny Tripp, as well as a Chinese investor and his daughter. From what sprang as unintentionally homophobic remarks made by Harriett to a journalist and swelled into Tom trying to protect Harriett from thugs who were harassing her on the street (for her admittedly insensitive remarks), we get an episode which sees Tom being arrested for assault and battery and they being indicted on an outstanding speeding ticket in Nevada where he is eventually charged for possession of marijuana which is in the jacket he’s wearing (which is Simon’s). This all goes down on Friday, hours before the live broadcast of the show. The Chinese investor is there because his daughter has been promised the ability to meet Tom, her favorite American celebrity, and Jack believes this will help TMG score a very lucrative merger. Tom is eventually released without being charged when the judge learns that his initial speeding ticket was to go visit his brother who was about to be shipped off to Afghanistan for the third time and that Tom had refused to tell him this in order to help free himself.
Before I get into the various aspects of the series that I think worked really well, I want to talk about my biggest problem with the series (well besides the nearly insufferable Harriett Hayes. I still can’t believe she’s based off of the awesome Kristen Chenoweth). The first episode of the disc (and to a lesser extent the other three episodes) showed several sketches that would end up being in the final show. The series likes to beat us over the head with how brilliant and funny Matt is, but a lot of these sketches aren’t particularly funny. They’re clever, no doubt, but they aren’t nearly as hilarious as the show would want us to think they are. If the show isn’t going to be able to make the sketches as humorous as everyone in the series believes them to be, then they should try and refrain from incorporating comedy into the series and just stick with what works which is the dramatic and political aspects of the show.
I want to give a special shout out to Stephen Weber who really had to transform Jack from a character that was a fairly one note indictment of corporate suits working in television to someone who is a little more complicated and sympathetic. There was a scene in the final episode of the disc where he believes the Chinese investor has insulted Jordan, and he blows up on the guy whose ass he’s been kissing the last two episodes in Jordan’s defense. Prior to that moment, he had hardly anything positive to say about Jordan the entire series. It was just a very emotional and intense moment and it contrasted well with the normally cool and in control demeanor that Weber usually employs as Jack. Also his scenes with Ed Asner show that there’s another side to Jack which is that even he has someone he has to answer to and it explains a lot of his less pleasant moments. It looks like his protective armor is starting to show cracks and it makes Jack a much more interesting and believable character.
While the series tackled its usual boogey man (censorship caused by the religious right) as it always does, it really expanded the types of liberal issues that it was willing to discuss from gay marriage to race. In one of the most honest and true conversations about race I’ve seen on network television, Simon and Matt’s conversation about whether the show needed more black writers really talked about the racial disparity in the entertainment industry outside of certain niche markets. Similarly, the series took two episodes to basically dispel the myth that believing homosexuality is a sin is not necessarily the same thing as being homophobic. It’s almost like the whole reason for Harriett’s existence has been to show weak-kneed pandering on the left and show it as being hypocritical and short-sighted and not the real compassion and love that our society needs. Even more than the network, Harriett seems to be the butt of all of Matt’s (and by proxy Sorkin’s) anger with the religious right even when she is painted as just being misguided and not willfully hostile.
Okay, I’ll stop rambling about the show now. We’re about 1/3 of the way through the series now. I’m still shocked that this show only lasted one season. It’s incredibly smart and the dialogue is among the very best in all of TV, network or otherwise. I guess it just wasn’t the right fit for a nation that would rather watch something terrible like Jersey Shore or Dancing with the Stars than a program as thought-provoking and challenging as this one. Oh well. Other than noticing how little I care for the actual sketches the show has and my continued dislike for Harriett, nothing about this disc has waned my excitement for this program and I still think it’s among the smartest programs network TV has aired in a very long time.
Final Score: A-